Video: How to Build a Shoegaze Pedalboard

Perhaps no rock music subgenre is more closely associated with guitar effects than shoegaze. It's all in the (somewhat pejorative) name bestowed upon this music by scoffing early-'90s British rock journalists; the bands in question were gazing at their shoes, busy operating their pedalboards.

Listening to some of these pioneering pedal maestros—such as My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Swervedriver—is like a masterclass in guitar effects implementation, with swirling funnel clouds of distortion, pitch bending, delay, and reverb amassing into a perfect sonic storm somewhere near the crossroads of punk rock and psychedelia.

Building a Shoegaze Board with Modern, Boutique Pedals

When looking at modern genres from post-rock to dream pop, an easy line can be connected back to shoegaze as the pioneer in creating oceans of sound with some switch stomps and knob turns. And in fact, many contemporary pedal builders have taken inspiration from the genre when crafting their circuits—sometimes throwing once-individual shoegaze effects together into multi-effect stompboxes of lush, cavernous warbles.

The shoegaze pioneers, of course, used the effects available to them at the time—which we discuss at length below. In our video above, however, Andy Martin shows how you can create a modern shoegaze pedalboard with these rich, well-built modern stompboxes.

He begins with one boutique multi-effect, the Old Blood Noise Endeavors Excess, which can combine a modulation and distortion thanks to its multiple circuits and parallel switching options.

From there, Andy uses the Walrus Audio Slö to add a huge reverb and a post-reverb Green Russian Muff. This post-reverb Muff not only adds yet more fuzz to the overall sound but also extends the reverb's tail in a unique and interesting way.

While that might be plenty for most genres, to really put you over the top for that dense, "are the walls bending?" vibe, Andy introduces vibrato, thanks to the Flower Pedals Dandelion Tremolo.

As the genre is one of sonic experimentation, feel free to experiment with different amounts of dirt both before and after your reverb. As you can hear while Andy demonstrates, there's a world of difference in how the dirt will affect your tone, depending on where you place it in your signal path.

The Crazy Tube Circuits Sidekick is another Swiss Army knife of a multi-effect that can give you shoegaze swirls in a single box: delay, flanger/chorus, and reverb. Andy matches it with an Adventure Audio Glacial Zenith II, which includes a drive, EQ, and boost circuit.

Building a Board with Classic Shoegaze Effects

For fans of this dense, droning, and often very melodic music, few bands are placed on a higher pedestal than My Bloody Valentine. MBV's Loveless is widely acknowledged as the landmark album of the genre, a masterpiece in the canon of rock music that has yet to be equaled, and an essential blueprint and study guide for aspiring sculptors of guitar noise. This album's outsized influence has rippled throughout the rock landscape since its 1991 release, showing up in the music of countless bands.

Though MBV's primary mastermind, Kevin Shields, has publicly stated, "90% of what we do is just a guitar straight into an amp," specific effects are certainly signature components of the band's sound, and these effects have thus become standard issue for the noise-happy guitar bands that followed in the band's wake. Let us take a moment to examine some of the crucial effects that have formed the building blocks of MBV's legendary and fearsome sound.

Distortion and Fuzz

Obviously distortion plays a huge role in creating a seething wall of guitar noise. Old standbys like the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff and ProCo RAT are widely used for this purpose and do the job nicely, but reportedly, the pedals used on MBV's classic albums and tours included a Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal, and two (yes, two) Marshall Guv'nor distortions running into a Marshall JCM800 and a Vox AC30 concurrently. According to Loveless engineer Alan Moulder, a Roger Mayer Octave Fuzz and Axis Fuzz were also used, often together for a squashed, heavily gated fuzz tone.

Boss PN-2 Tremolo/Pan

MBV's use of tremolo added a distinctive pulse to their wash of guitar fuzz, and the primary pedal used to generate this effect was the Boss PN-2 Tremolo/Pan. Shields often had two of them on his pedalboard during the Loveless era, with one going to each of his two amps.

According to Shields, "Only Shallow," the opening song on the album, features both his Marshall and Vox amplifiers facing each other, with a microphone in between. A Boss PN-2 runs into each one, with each tremolo pedal set to a different rate. The resulting track was then doubled, fed into a sampler, and reversed, creating an impossibly dense, undulating throb.

Reverse Reverb

The reverse reverb is one of the most recognizable signature effects of Kevin Shields and company. MBV created this effect with either an Alesis Midiverb II or a Yamaha SPX-90, depending on which one was available at the time, but Shields seemed to prefer the SPX-90, as he felt its reverse reverb setting interacted better with his playing. Both units are fairly common, affordable rack effects processors that were often found in mid-level studios in the late '80s and early '90s.

The secret to recreating the MBV reverse reverb sound is to turn the dry guitar signal completely down in the mix, using only the reverb, and use a fast, punk rock–style downstroke strumming technique. Shields has described the resulting sound as a "totally melted sort of liquid sound."

Samplers and Loopers

Though not a traditional guitar effect, per se, sampling technology was vital to MBV's sound, both live and in the studio, and Loveless is positively awash in samples of all kinds, from guitar feedback and reversed rhythm tracks, to background vocals, drums, and even flute melodies.

Shields and engineer Alan Moulder typically used an Akai S1000 sampler, which was triggered via MIDI. Of course, with today's excellent and widely available looper pedals, one can achieve very similar things. In fact, Shields' pedalboard for the recent MBV reunion features a Digitech JamMan Looper looper, among gazillions of other pedals.

A Wealth of Options for Shoegaze Tone

The modern shoegazer is blessed with an embarrassment of riches, as least as far as options with which to fill a pedalboard. There has never been a better time to be a guitar-wielding, sound-mangling, effect pedal fanatic.

In addition to all the classic and modern options mentioned above, there's plenty of honorable mentions, including (but in no way limited to): Death By Audio Echo Dream 2, Walrus Audio Bellwether Delay, Dr. Scientist BitQuest, Chase Bliss Audio Gravitas Tremolo, Function f(x) Clusterfuzz, and every pedal ZVex has ever made.

Contributors to this article include Jamie Wolfert and Matt Biancardi.

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